VOICES: Deconstructing the systems crushing the South's young people in the pandemic

Young people in the South have been hit especially hard economically by the COVID-19 pandemic, suffering higher-than-normal levels of hunger and homelessness. (City of St. Petersburg, Florida, photo via Flickr.)

Young people, ages 16 to 24, are undergoing immense suffering due to the pandemic, and nowhere is that clearer than in the South where I am from. As of September, young workers had filed 15.4% of the 2.2 million unemployment insurance claims among 12 Southern states.* Moreover, pre-pandemic inequities pertaining to employment, homelessness, food insecurity, and health care have all been exacerbated by this crisis.

As a 25-year-old Black woman living in Stone Mountain, Georgia, just outside of Atlanta, I acutely feel the current struggles of my generation and how they are compounded by an inadequate policy response from our elected leaders.

In January, before President Trump let people know the extent of the novel coronavirus threat, I quit my full-time job in an academic department at a well-known university. While I intended to find part-time work, I knew that my full-time position was not allowing me ample time to prepare for the Graduate Record Examinations. If I was going to be admitted to any master of public policy program in the fall, I needed to do well on that exam.

Although I lived at home with my mother, who is a full-time nurse, and my younger brother, who works in the mental and behavioral health sector, earning money was still a necessity. I had my monthly payment on my undergraduate school loans, everyday expenses and bills to help our household pay, and additional savings needed for graduate school tuition and textbooks.

But then America learned the truth about COVID-19 and the job market cratered. Good policy jobs required experience that I didn't yet have, and internships in the field were mostly unpaid. The employers who were hiring — largely in the service sector — were not keeping their workers safe with proper personal protective equipment (PPE). With my mother in her 60s, and my brother needing to work to help support our family too, I was not willing to expose them to that health risk.

Like many Americans, I experienced a palpable increase in anxiety and worry. When you need income, being unemployed at the height of a pandemic is disconcerting, to say the least. It came as no surprise to me that young adults — and particularly young adults of color — began to experience worse mental health outcomes and increased suicidal ideation. Unfortunately, also unsurprising was the apparent disconnect between young people's experiences and the public policy response from our elected leaders. Indeed, the Georgia legislature approved its fiscal year 2021 budget in June, and it includes a $7.2 million cut to adult mental health services, a $29 million cut to services for adults with developmental disabilities, and a $22.7 million cut to child and adolescent mental health services, including supported education and employment services.

It seems whenever we need to tighten the belt, it's the people who are already severely constricted who need to do the most tightening.

While I applied for jobs, I also filed for unemployment. But in February I was informed that I was ineligible because I had resigned from my previous position. Seeking clarification, the contact number that I was provided consistently went straight to dial tone. There was no email address for answers to any questions, and no office was open for in-person visits.

I stayed focused on preparing for the exam, applying for jobs, and also caring for my mother for a few weeks when she contracted COVID-19 at her workplace. I realized there were many people suffering a lot more than I was, including among my own family, friends, and community. Even before the pandemic, in the South every 1 in 7 Hispanic households and 1 in 5 Black households were food insecure, compared to 1 in 10 white households. During the pandemic hunger intensified: In Georgia, less than 8% of households were food insecure as of December 2018; in April-May 2020 that rate skyrocketed to more than 23%. Among 10 Southern states, food insecurity reached 20 to 30%, and it climbed above 30% in Louisiana and Mississippi.

These numbers confirmed what I was witnessing with my own eyes. I volunteered with the food pantry at my church's community center, which also provided individuals and families with monetary assistance, access to PPE, toiletries, and other basic necessities. While the center had already served the poor, people without homes, and those that society deems the “least of these,” there were now people who had been just one paycheck away from dire straits. The pandemic made their worst-case scenario real. Even prior to COVID-19, an estimated 1 in 10 young adults (ages 18 to 25) experienced a form of homelessness at some point in the year. That is roughly 3.5 million young individuals without a home in the U.S. During the first two months of the pandemic, our church provided people with more food and resources than it had for the prior year and a half.

Kicking down doors

In mid-May, Georgia notified me that in fact I did qualify for unemployment benefits and that I was owed backpay as well. So, I went back into the system and spent a full day entering the requested daily earnings information as well as a questionnaire for each week. The website was cumbersome to navigate and some of the directions lacked clarity. I was thankful that I had a strong computer background from my college days, but I knew that even my mother — who I sometimes assisted on the computer — would have had a hard time with the site. I also knew a lot of people didn't have a computer or broadband; in my community, many children and families rely on our public library for internet access and Chromebooks on loan, and the library was closed. Moreover, it's now more than seven months since I provided the requested information and I still haven't received any benefits.

Over the summer I applied for approximately 50 jobs without luck and exhausted my savings for graduate school. I also hunted down many graduate assistantships, but the few that were available went to students who were admitted under the early priority deadline. Although I had been admitted to Georgia State University, I wondered if my only reasonable option was to delay entry because I didn't have the money to pay for it. But then I realized, given this economy and the lack of opportunity, would I ever have the money to pay? As much as I hated the idea, I needed to take out another loan. I had worked and scraped to keep up with my undergraduate payments, ensure that my interest rate remained the same, and save for graduate school. Now it seemed I would forever be in debt.

In September, when my graduate internship with the Southern Economic Advancement Project founded by Stacey Abrams came through, I was elated. Not only did the weight of financial anxiety lift a bit, but I would also have the opportunity to research what was happening to my generation across the South. I had a sense from my own experiences, but now I would have the time to dig into the data and interview other people as well.

I connected with young people in Georgia through Deep Center, in South Carolina through EveryBlackGirl Inc., and in Tennessee through the Student Basic Needs Coalition. One thing that was consistent was an expressed desire for young people to have more voice in policymaking. The East Baton Rouge School District provides one model: The school board has proposed a youth advisory council that would include a non-voting board member. It would elicit policy feedback from the council and provide a platform for student-led initiatives. The Washington State Legislative Youth Advisory Council is a similar effort through which young people have been involved with bills addressing dropout prevention, substance abuse, mental health services, criminal sentencing, and college access and affordability.

My experiences with the unemployment system are consistent with what many young people say they are experiencing. Not only is there a sense that the system is unnecessarily complicated to navigate, but the South's $232 weekly average benefit level doesn't come close to covering basic needs like food, housing, and transportation. We need to raise that benefit level and also make more part-time and gig workers eligible, and benefits should last at least 26 weeks — the average duration of unemployment for Black workers, compared to 20 weeks for white workers. We also need to look squarely at how states with high percentages of Black and Latinx residents have made it difficult to apply for and receive assistance, and then dismantle those barriers. Similarly, many of these same states have refused to expand Medicaid so that people can get the basic health services they need without facing bankruptcy.

It is also unacceptable to many young people — indeed unfathomable — that in a nation as rich as ours so many of us live under the threat of homelessness and experience it firsthand. We need to suspend evictions and foreclosures, and provide homeless individuals with health and supportive services while helping them obtaining secure housing. Moreover, pandemic aid with rent, utilities, and food should continue until the economic and health crisis is over.

Many young people are currently getting by in part through efforts of churches like mine and other nonprofits. Moving forward, we need all levels of government to formally engage with local nonprofits, community leaders, and faith-based organizations to create mutual aid networks that help provide food, housing, and disaster relief. These networks can also work within the system to make the needs of their communities clear and create policies that will prevent this kind of economic vulnerability.

Additionally, now and after the pandemic, we have to position young people for jobs that earn family-supporting wages and pass minimum wage laws to create family-supporting wages. Workers ages 16 to 24 are overrepresented in the service occupations, leisure and hospitality industry, and retail. We can provide workforce training, employment opportunities, and supportive services through Title I of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). In 2019, the national average for young workers having gainful employment after completing a WIOA program was 72%.

Finally, young people see clearly that there is a mental health crisis in our nation. It deserves and needs a compassionate, aggressive, and holistic response. It is long past time to rehabilitate and strengthen statewide mental and behavioral health systems so that access is extended to every individual. Designing comprehensive mental health and school-based services will also strengthen young people's mental and emotional well-being.

What is perhaps most tragic to many young people of color is that we knew these inequities existed before the pandemic hit, just as our parents and grandparents knew long before now. Some people say this crisis has shined a light on the suffering, but the fact is that light has been shining for generations. Young people stand ready to be a part of the solution — to help make the structural reforms needed so that this nation will realize its promise. Typically, young people and the South are left out of national conversations. We're not going to be left out anymore. You can open the door, or we can kick it down — but either way we are coming through.

* For purposes of this article, "the South" refers to the 12 states that are covered in the work of the Southern Economic Advancement Project: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.